Death toll rises as Israel bombs Gaza for second day and Palestinian militants retaliate

Smoke rises after Israeli airstrikes on residential building, in Gaza City, on Saturday. Credit: AP

Israeli airstrikes have flattened homes in Gaza for a second day as retaliatory Palestinian rocket barrages into southern Israel on Saturday, raising fears of another major escalation in the Mideast conflict.

The fighting began after Israel killed a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group in a wave of strikes on Friday that Israel said were meant to prevent an "imminent" attack.

Health authorities in the Palestinian coastal enclave said 15 people had been killed and at least 100 more injured in the Israeli attacks that hit several sites in the blockaded territory.

A five-year-old girl and two women are among those confirmed dead. Authorities did not say whether the others were civilians or not.

Earlier on Saturday, Israeli warplanes stepped up strikes with hits on four residential buildings in Gaza City, all locations apparently linked to Islamic Jihad militants.

There were no reports of casualties. In each case, the Israeli military said it warned residents ahead of the strikes.

Gaza militants retaliated on Saturday by firing nearly 450 rounds of rockets into Israel, said the Israeli military, though almost all were intercepted.

An airstrike hits a building in Gaza

This video contains distressing images

One rocket barrage was fired toward Tel Aviv, setting off sirens that sent residents fleeing to shelters, but the rockets were either intercepted or fell into the sea, the military added.

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid held a security Cabinet meeting on Saturday night, after saying in a Friday night speech that “Israel isn’t interested in a broader conflict in Gaza but will not shy away from one either."

In another Israeli strike on Saturday, a car was hit killing a 75-year-old woman and wounding six other people. In one of the strikes, after the warnings, fighter jets dropped two bombs on the house of an Islamic Jihad member.

The blast flattened the two-story structure, leaving a large rubble-filled crater, and badly damaged surrounding homes. Women and children were rushed out of the area.

Rockets fired by Palestinian militants toward Israel, in Gaza City. Credit: AP

“Warned us? They warned us with rockets and we fled without taking anything,” said Huda Shamalakh, who lived next door, and said 15 people lived in the targeted home. Among the 24 Palestinians killed were six children and two women, as well as the senior Islamic Jihad commander.

The lone power plant in Gaza ground to a halt at noon Saturday for lack of fuel as Israel has kept its crossing points into Gaza closed since Tuesday.

With the new disruption, Gazans can get only four hours of electricity a day, increasing their reliance on private generators and deepening the territory’s chronic power crisis amid peak summer heat.

The Israeli military also said an errant rocket fired by Palestinian militants killed civilians late on Saturday, including children, in the town of Jabaliya, in northern Gaza.

Mourning children during the funeral of Palestinian Tamim Hijazi, who was killed in an Israeli air strike, in the Gaza Strip. Credit: AP

The military said it investigated the incident and concluded “without a doubt” that it was caused by a misfire on the part of Islamic Jihad. There was no official Palestinian comment on the incident. A Palestinian medical worker, who was not authorised to brief media and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the blast killed at least six people, including three children.

So far, Hamas, the larger militant group that rules Gaza, appeared to stay on the sidelines of the conflict, keeping its intensity somewhat contained.

Israel and Hamas fought a war barely a year ago, one of four major conflicts and several smaller battles over the last 15 years that exacted a staggering toll on the impoverished territory’s 2 million Palestinian residents.

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Whether Hamas continues to stay out of the fight likely depends in part on how much punishment Israel inflicts in Gaza as rocket fire steadily continues.

Sunday could be a critical day in the flare-up, as Jews mark Tisha B’av, a somber day of fasting that commemorates the destruction of the biblical temples. Thousands are expected at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and Israeli media reported that the Israeli leadership was expected to allow lawmakers to visit a key hilltop holy site in the city that is a flashpoint for violence between Israelis and Palestinians. On Friday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a televised speech that “Israel isn’t interested in a broader conflict in Gaza but will not shy away from one either.”

The latest round of Israel-Gaza violence was rooted in the arrest earlier this week of a senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank, part of a months-long Israeli military operation in the territory. A teen Islamic Jihad member was also killed in a gunbattle. Israel then closed roads around Gaza and sent reinforcements to the border, warning of retaliation. On Friday, it killed Islamic Jihad’s commander for northern Gaza, Taiseer al-Jabari, in a strike on a Gaza City apartment building. An Israeli military spokesman said the strikes were in response to an “imminent threat” from two militant squads armed with anti-tank missiles.